Today, Manhattan’s lower east side is a playground for hipsters with trust funds and young lions from the financial industry, looking for a bit of night life. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a slum, packed tight with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. It was into this neighborhood in 1896 that Benjamin Leiner was born. He would go on to become one of boxing’s greatest pound-for-pound stars, under the name of Benny Leonard, “The Ghetto Wizard.”
Leonard began his boxing career at 15, fighting under the assumed name, to keep his career secret from his protective mother. He served a brutal apprenticeship in the sport, as was common for the era, getting knocked out on multiple occasions during his first year as a professional. But he quickly developed into a brilliant scientific fighter. He had quick hands, quick feet, and power in both fists. He made excellent use of his jab and was a master ring general. In 1917, he captured the World Lightweight Championship, at just 21.
Leonard joined the army during World War One, serving as a bayonet and hand-to-hand combat instructor. He reigned as champion for seven years, becoming one of the sport’s most popular stars. In 1923, he became the first boxing champion to fight in Yankee Stadium. Leonard beat such greats as Lew Tendler, John Dundee and Jack Britton. He drew with Kid Lewis in one attempt to win the welterweight belt and was disqualified in a 1922 welterweight challenge to Britton, who he had beaten twice previously.
Leonard retired as champion in 1924, at the urging of his mother. Leonard was always proud to call himself a “mamma’s boy.” However, like so many Americans, Leonard lost much of his savings during the financial crash of 1929, and he later attempted a comeback in 1931. He won 20 straight fights before getting knocked out in six rounds by Jimmy McLarnin, sending him back into retirement.
When knowledgeable boxing historians discuss the greatest lightweight fighters of all time, Benny Leonard is generally ranked as one or two, alongside Roberto Duran. Remarkably, despite the fact of their career being separated by a half century, Leonard and Duran actually shared a trainer, the legendary Ray Arcel.